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Remove Margaret Sanger's Bust from the National Portrait Gallery

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Recent events in our country have awakened public discourse concerning the acceptance of racism and fascism in some American circles. This discourse, to be effective, begs the examination of a long celebrated figure Margaret Sanger.

In the National Portrait Gallery, in an exhibit entitled ‘Struggle for Justice’, stands a bust honoring Sanger for her work in sex education and for the establishment of the American Birth Control League. Upon even the most elementary inquiry, it becomes apparent that Sanger worked to advance both racist and eugenic beliefs, and was deeply involved with both the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi party. The evidence of such involvement is extensive, pervasive, and ought to disqualify her from being of being recognized among those who struggled for the oppressed. Sanger’s bust ought to be removed from the exhibit.

Sanger was a public and well-documented supporter of eugenics, the ‘science’ of Nazi genocide. She attended the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932, where she and other attendees unanimously elected prominent Nazi Ernst Rüdin as President of the International Federation of Eugenics Organization. Rüdin went on to celebrate the “holy national and international racial hygienic mission” of Adolf Hitler, and would become more influential to the mass extermination of 11 million people than even the infamous Dr. Mengele. Sanger’s sympathies and partnerships with Nazis and other eugenicists persisted until her death, and the principles of eugenics permeated her work.

Sanger is most often celebrated for her creation of the American Birth Control League, an organization that operated under Nazi-practiced eugenic principles, but was created to limit and sterilize genetically inferior races and populations. Founding board members included Lothrop Stoddard, outspoken racist and Ku Klux Klan member. Sanger herself would later speak at KKK meetings.  Sanger is also credited with the creation of the Negro Project, a program aimed at introducing birth control into the African American communities in an attempt to quell a population who’s, as Sanger put it, “progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Sanger was perfectly clear in the April 1932 edition of Birth Control Review, stating that she believed that “birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.” Claims that Sanger only intended to help a struggling and impoverished population are simply not consistent with her well documented and emphatic eugenic beliefs in the superiority of certain white races.

Sanger’s bust in the ‘Struggle for Justice’ exhibit sits in close proximity to MLK and Rosa Parks, which is not only absurd, but perverse. Sanger was no champion of justice, but rather an active oppressor of the poor and disenfranchised. If Sanger can be considered a purveyor of justice, it would only be for classes of white females who she believed to be superior and thus worthy of reproduction.

In 2015, a group of black pastors petitioned the Gallery to remove the bust. Kim Sajet, director the National Portrait Gallery, conceded Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement. The signage included with the bust itself reads that, “Sanger became associated with the eugenics movement – which promoted, among other practices, the forced sterilization of those deemed mentally unfit and for a time was endorsed by many of the era’s prominent thinkers”.

Sajet, in her statement defending the bust, attempts to isolate Sanger’s work with contraception from her eugenic aims. Sajet claims that her work in eugenics and her work in birth control merely make her a figure of “controversy.” However, the two are inseparable, not contradictory.  Sanger advanced birth control and sex education as a means to further such things as forced sterilization, the extermination of blacks, the feeble minded, and other so-called less desirables. She perpetuated the ideas and values that led to the Holocaust. We must not confuse our modern sympathies toward personal family planning with Margaret Sanger’s aims. Her well documented intentions were to keep the undesirable populations from reproducing while encouraging those whom she found desirable to procreate.

Even in light of the above and other countless examples of Sanger’s interest in perpetuating eugenics and racism, Sajet claims that “there is no ‘moral test’ for people to be accepted into the National Portrait Gallery.”

We as a country should most certainly employ a ‘moral test’ on those that we chose to celebrate in our national, citizen funded museums- especially an exhibit showcasing Americans’ efforts towards justice. While we recognize that “human imperfection and infallibility” should not be blotted out from the pages of our country’s history, the placement of Sanger’s bust in the ‘Struggle for Justice’ exhibit is hardly an appropriate lens through which to view her sordid past. While Sanger certainly impacted the fabric of America, it was not with the same intentions as others featured in the exhibit- her work with eugenics and racism were not footnotes to her work, but rather the motivation for it. The “scientific principles” that Sajet credits as the foundation to Sanger’s work are the same “scientific principles” that justified the Holocaust. To refer to Sanger as simply “less than perfect,” is a disturbing and insulting understatement. Part of “setting a path towards a better future,” as Sajet hopes to do, is to also denounce those who perpetuate evil in and against the citizens of our country and against common human dignity.

As an American in a society where we work to extinguish the scourges of racism and discrimination, sign the petition to affirm that neither Nazi eugenics nor racism have a place of honor in the moral fabric of the United States.  Ask that Kim Sajet remove the bust of Margaret Sanger from the ‘Struggle for Justice’ exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.

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